The first few weeks after a stroke – when the brain is best able to rewire and reorganize itself to give victims a chance at recovery – are vital.

Unfortunately, while about 62,000 Canadians suffer strokes each year, of survivors with moderate to severe impairment, only 37 per cent receive rehabilitation in the weeks immediately afterwards.

John McPhee, a professor of systems design engineering at the University of Waterloo, and PhD student Borna Ghannadi are working to change that.

‘Rehab Robot’ to streamline the medical response process

Robotics used to help in rehabilitation

Borna Ghannadi, right, and Sara Greenberg are developing a posture-tracking system to ensure patients using a rehab robot are engaging the right muscles.

Their research is helping to perfect a stroke rehabilitation robot that could help more patients receive the care they need soon after a stroke, when it’s most beneficial.

“There’s a period of neuroplasticity when rehab is most effective,” explains McPhee. “So if you can shorten wait times, the more people you can get in there to work with an occupational and physical therapist right after a stroke, the better off everybody is.”

Typically, stroke patients work one-on-one with therapists who help them repeatedly perform tasks such as reaching with the hand on the injured side of the body. Repetition helps strengthen and create new pathways in the brain during sessions lasting up to three hours.

But what if there was a way for one therapist to work with numerous patients at the same time?

Improving on current technology

Research by McPhee and Ghannadi addresses that goal by taking a Rehab Robot, which can help patients perform repetitive tasks and exercises, and making it smarter.

The patient holds onto a handle and pushes and pulls in the direction their doctor has requested. A therapist oversees the process, but does not have to physically help.

If the patient is particularly weak or has limited range of movement, a computer senses it and applies force to move their arm. As the patient gets stronger, the robot automatically switches tactics by starting to resist rather than aid movement.

The brainchild of the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute and Quanser Incorporated, which builds specialty research equipment, the robot initially had limited features.

Additions by Ghannadi have since made it more powerful by integrating a sensor and a grip. He has also created a musculoskeletal model inside the computer system that helps decide which muscles are activated and when.

“Before there was no feedback and no intelligent control,” McPhee says. “The robot was a dumb machine that controlled an arm. Now it’s a very sophisticated control system that makes the right decision for the patient.”

Clinical testing on the horizon for the ‘Rehab Robot’

McPhee says that perfecting such a system at Waterloo makes complete sense.

In addition to its long history of working closely with industry and bringing life-changing technologies to market, the University is developing growing research expertise in biomedical engineering. A new undergraduate program in the field and the Centre for Bioengineering and Biotechnology are recent examples of that commitment.

The Rehab Robot technology is now going through the ethics approval process at Grand River Hospital in Kitchener so it can be tested in a clinical setting with actual patients.

“All of our partners have been tremendously supportive,” McPhee says. “Industry has its eye on the final prize – to commercialize the robot for in-home use. And we’re offering original, new contributions. It’s a good fit.”